12 August 2009

Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles - Season 1

Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles - Season 1
starring Lena Heady, Thomas Dekker, Summer Glau, Brian Austin Green, Richard T. Jones, Garret Dillahunt, Dean Winters

developed for television by Josh Friedman

based on the characters created by Ja
mes Cameron
FOX, 9 episodes, 3 Discs,

Pretty Frakkin' Good

Bloody Friday nights, and bloody FOX for putting The Sarah Connor Chronicles on bloody Friday nights. See, most of the time, channels dump shows they don’t have too much faith in on Fridays, and of course, with most of the population out celebrating the new weekend on that night, these programs are unable to garner a big enough audience for said channel to find it financially worthwhile and will inevitably cancel the show within four episodes, maybe more if the show’s lucky. The most famous offense was Joss Whedon’s Firefly, a program that I admittedly didn’t get into during its initial broadcast and thus am one of the people who got the show canceled. Most recently, the FOX Friday sci-f lineup consisted of The Sarah Connor Chronicles’ second season and the freshmen year of Joss Whedon’s experimental Dollhouse. By May, T:SCC was canceled, and Dollhouse renewed.

It’s unfortunate that The Sarah Connor Chronicles is no more, because judging by this first season alone, the show had potential to be very, very good. Boasting a great cast, a brilliant composer, intelligent and suspenseful scripts, and did I mention a great cast? Developer and show runner Josh Friedman clearly knows his Terminator mythology, and his affection for the series is evident through each script which stays faithful to what has come before and expounds on story plots and themes from the motion pictures. It’s about as good of a Terminator series as any fan of the sci-fi epics could ask for.

Keep in mind, a creative decision was made that the show’s continuity stays in tune with
Terminator 2: Judgment Day, but seems to neglect the Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines canon. However, the subject of Sarah’s cancer, a plot brought up in T3, is integrated into the storyline.

It’s 1999, and the Connors (now under the guise of last name Reese) are living in comfortable secrecy. Although Sarah (Heady) still suffers nightmares of Terminators, she and John reside in Los Angeles with her boyfriend, paramedic Charley Dixon (Winters), living relatively normal lives: Sarah works as a waitress, and John goes to school. There are two unfor
tunate variables, however – one is Agent James T. Ellison (Jones), a FBI Special Agent determined to capture Sarah who he reasons to be out of her mind, and T-888 Terminator named Cromartie ambushes John at his high school. Saved by an oddball of a girl named Cameron, John escapes. Turns out that Cameron is actually a Terminator re-programmed by future Connor and sent back to assist himself. Abandoning their life with Dixon, the three of them go on the run, but John wants nothing more than to stop this from happening all over again, meaning to stop Skynet permanently. Cameron offers one way out, a way that no Terminator will be able to track them and they will be able to maneuver freely: a time jump.

Constructed inside a bank, the Connors and Cameron jump to Los Angeles 2007, free to stop Skynet and avert Judgment Day. The only problem is that unbeknownst to them, the head of Cromartie, who was pursuing them in the bank and got blasted by a special gun used by Sarah, made it through the jump. As the Connors set out to ensure a robot apocalypse never comes to pass, Cromartie’s chip reactivates, and uses any means necessary to reconstruct a body and re-engage the Connors and fulfill its mission. The increasing amount of dead bodies in Cromartie’s wake arouses the attention of Agent Ellison, and the evidence left at the crime scenes strain his religious beliefs and forces him to reconsider Sarah Connor’s testimonies. Even jumping nine years, the Connor gang is running out of time: with Cromartie and Agent Ellison on their tails, it’s rather difficult to stay out of sight and do what must be done…at least they have their very own Terminator on their side, who may be something more than meets the eye (bad Transformers reference, forgive me).

One of the main concerns any average to die-hard fan of the Terminator franchise had was that the movies featured plenty of action sequences, and it’s not necessarily possible to execute such scenes in a TV show week after week, especially with their limited budget and even more strained filming time.
This is easily and effectively handled – although T:SCC does feature action (oh yes, it features action; there are plenty of awesome scenes to geek out over), its central story and main focus is a very intimate, non-explosivey type: the relationship and life of Sarah and John Connor. The emphasis is on their story and the choices they’re forced to make more so than the impending Apocalypse, a strategy I think works very well and entices the viewers.

The main thrust of the season (and perhaps series?) is this little machine called The Turk, an intelligent chess-playing computer developed by cell phones salesman Andy Goode, a past assistant to Miles Dyson at Cyberdyne Systems. It’s inferred that Andy’s little machine may very well have started Judgment Day, or at least was an extraordinarily important component in making it comes to pass. Thus, it becomes a moral game for Sarah: kill Andy and potentially stop a possible way for Judgment Day to never happen? But before she can mak
e a decision, the Turk itself goes missing, and there’s not much hope in finding it. Although the concept of the Turk and the idea that this little dinky chess-playing computer is an important catalyst for Doomsday, the storyline feels like its ran its course rather quickly, and the remaining episodes with it sorta made me wish it was all resolved and done with. Though, I will admit ‘Dungeons & Dragons’ (106), or ‘the future episode’ as it’s no doubt commonly referred to, was interesting with Andy Goode’s inclusion as part of the Resistance, which develops into another plot that directly links to 2007 and what Sarah’s doing.

Lena Heady (300), pulling a Hugh Laurie and hiding her native accent, while not being a perfect Linda Hamilton match, nonetheless embodies who Sarah Connor is brilliantly and seemingly effortlessly. Here’s a woman who has gone through some serious shit – working as a waitress in the ‘80’s (if memory serves me right), run after by a killing robot and saved by a future military fighter, gets pregnant, later put into an asylum, attempts to break out but saved by a similar model of the very thing that tried to kill her, forced on the run again not only by Terminators but by the law, living in hiding and embracing multiple identities, and above all, the struggle to ensure that her son lives at all costs. That’s enough to weigh anyone down, and Heady is able to show us the strength of this character (and even warmth), but at times – rare as they may be – her vulnerabilities. And the best part is – I totally buy it and believe it. The only thing about the characters use in the show is the much overdone voice over’s in nearly each episode.

Casting for John Connor, future leader of the Resistance musta been a bitch to do, but I feel Thomas Dekker was a good enough choice. Widely known for his few episode stints in the first season of NBC’s
Heroes, I confess I wasn’t exactly the most assured camper with news of his casting. But, surprisingly, Dekker fits perfectly, absolutely feeling like a teenage John Connor that could plausibly be the inter-years between Edward Furlong and Nick Stahl. The unfortunate part is that occasionally, the scripts make John come off as a little whiny, a little bratty, but I wager that can’t be helped: here’s a young man who’s under amazing pressure about living in rather mostly solitude. Here he is in seclusion, living double identities and never fully able to connect with anyone, and is being prepped on ways to save the future, or at the very least be an amazing military general. There are moments where John’s frustration at never being able to go out and do things like normal kids that ring a little annoying, but in retrospect, it’s perfectly understandable and forgivable. But I guess I gotta give him and Sarah some slack with the whole being the only defense humanities got thing.

However, there are plenty of opportunities for John to shine, for inklings of the future leader of the resistance who soon will be to glimmer through. Episode 104, ‘Heavy Metal’, is a perfect example of the continuing development of the John Connor character; basically abandoning the pleas of Sarah and Cameron, John attempts to take out this cargo that contains the metal that will eventually be used to make Terminators. It’s a real treasure watching John take a stand against Sarah (albeit on rare occasions) and make choices of his own, showing little bleeps of the future leader he will become.

Pretty boy Brian Austin Green’s mid-season appearance as a Resistance fighter who is personally quite important to John, spices up the story and makes things a tad more interesting (not to mention a rather perfect set-up for a post-Judgment Day storyline), but as a actor, he just didn’t do it for me. Frankly, he looked like he jus
t came off the set of The CW’s One Tree Hill, and just grew a little facial hair to look rugged and dirty. To his detriment, he just has that ‘I aspire to be a supermodel look.’ However, when the time comes for his character to be totally and utterly badass, Green does it, and he does it good. He may not come off as the most realistic Resistance fighter, let alone a fighter in general, and he may not be able to deliver all that the script requires of him, but when it comes to intimidation and ferocity, Green gets the job done.

And finally, we have Summer Glau, who plays the ‘unknown’ cyborg Cameron, sent back in time by Connor himself. Cameron is an interesting T
erminator, able to eat food, mimic human traits flawlessly, and also has the trust of future John. Speaking of “future John”, I absolutely loved it when Cameron refers to both Johns, and how when Sarah asks if she must follow his every order, Cameron replies: “Not this John.” Sarah, quizzically, asks: “Are they one of the same?” Cameron forebodes, “not yet.” Its little moments like that that just makes me fanboy giddy. Anywhoozle, Glau’s performance is plain black and white awesome, and it doesn’t hurt that she has a lot of interesting material to work with – Cameron is perhaps the most intriguing Terminator of the franchise, holding many possibilities as to what she is and what her true motives are.

My only real complaint with the show would be the Terminators and how they move. I understand that Cameron was required to act human enough to fool even the viewers with no pre-knowledge of what she was, but even after her identities revealed, Glau sometimes comes off as far too human, echoing many human traits and tendencies. It seems with everything she does right (and there’s a ginormous amount), there’s a small few cyborg inconsistencies. Same thing goes with the main Cromartie actor, who (aside from never coming off threatening) never screams ‘robot.’

For a TV series on FOX, the effects are pretty good. Not as spectacular as, say, the SPFX in
BSG, but they’re better and more realistic than I would have anticipated. Though, sadly, the full CG shots of the robotic endoskeleton just look…well, CGI, lacking any sort of reality to it at all. I recall when watching the ‘Pilot’ being absolutely stricken by how awesome Sarah’s dream sequence was, with a giant nuclear explosion and a Terminators human body bursting off to reveal its mechanical structure. It’s an amazing sequence with some really spiffy computer imaging work. Another episode that boasts some spiffy CG work is ‘Dungeons & Dragons’, as the future L.A. looks pretty close enough to Cameron’s original vision. There’s some dodgy composition work, as evidenced by a sequence in which Cameron jumps off a moving vehicle that’s about to fly off a cliff. But, hey, the effects are passable.

Battlestar Galactica
’s Bear McCreary shows off his beautiful talents as composer for this series. There’s plenty of action tunes and some brilliant themes, including ‘Sarah’s Theme’, which is basically in every episode with occasional mixes that make it all the more wonderful to listen to. I’m not much of a music critic, but I can safely say that thus far, McCreary has never disappointed me with a score. I am happy to say that I own all four of the BSG soundtracks, the T:SCC soundtrack, and the Caprica soundtrack. McCreary is unchallenged as composer in the television world, in my opinion, and although this isn’t his absolute bestest (BSG S03), it’s still grand and great.

I received the three discs from Netflix, and with my anxiousness to get to the next episode, I didn’t spend a lot of time lingering on all the bonus material. However, me being the commentary freak that I am, I made sure I gave a listen to the three commentaries present. Up first is commentary for ‘Pilot’ (101), with Friedman and director David Nutter stealing the show discussing inspirations and ideas. Although none of the commentaries really feature bewildering and/or worthwhile information, they are mostly enjoyable to listen to, especially due to Friedman’s nonchalant tone in which he’s quite earnest with what went right and what went wrong, and then there’s the moments where he geeks out discussing the franchise and how giddy he is to be involved in it. His love and enthusiasm for the series almost made me as giddy and ready to work as a writing consultant for the show! Co-stars Heady, Dekker, and Glau make their way on commentaries, with Glau offering virtually nothing, Heady not really bringing much to the table, but Dekker jogs in-between joking and seriously discussing his character and arc. There’s also behind-the-scenes tidbits found on Discs 1 & 2, all of them being quite informative and interesting enough to keep one’s attention. There’s dissection of CGI and sets in some of the more episode-centric behind-the-scenes found on Disc 2, with Disc 1 housing the more overall show info, such as the initial idea for the series and the particular Terminator models used in the show. More bonus features than I expected, but all of them are worth giving a look at.

You either like the Terminator franchise or yah don’t.
T:SCC doesn’t have all the action as the movies, but it relies on the characters, grounding this series in the same world as the movies and having its main drive be exactly that of the movies, but more intimately dabbled with the Connors and their constant running in lieu of pretty explosions. The series is very interesting, very suspenseful, wonderfully acted, wonderfully scripted, majestically scored, and highly entertaining. I guess the best compliment I could give is that in the movies, I didn’t much care for Sarah or John and their plight – I just wanted to see the Terminators; well, now it’s the other way around: Sarah and John are my first priority. I want to know about them, I want to know what’s going on with their lives and their continued fight against this seemingly inevitable future. Aided by the wonderful behind-the-scenes talent, Terminator – The Sarah Connor Chronicles grabs the viewers into their story and doesn’t let go.

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